MOX: Illustrated Guide to Freelance Translation

A comic look into the worst of freelance translation

The second edition of Alejandro Moreno-Ramos’ collection of comic strips is a humorous look into the life of freelance translator Mox, who is joined by his faithful turtle Mina; his girlfriend Lena; and the various and sundry unethical businesspeople whose primary purpose in existence is to torment him.

The comic strip, which you can also peruse by going to the author’s blog at, is interspersed with essays written by translation bloggers Sarah M. Dillon, Alex Eames, Céline Graciet, Judy Jenner, Laurent Laget, Benny Lewis, Corinne McKay, Pablo Muñoz, Rose Newell, Jill Sommer, Ramón Somoza, Steve Vitek and Kevin Lossner. Lossner praises Moreno-Ramos’ take on the life of a freelance translator in his introduction, noting that “I find myself working as a translator among peers whose real world and imagined tribulations are not unlike the comic characters of my college days,” who “succinctly described the absurdity of existence and helped me to laugh at it.”

The sentiment is quite popular with the many freelance translators who comment on Moreno-Ramos’ Mox website. Tales of bad payment rates, bounced checks, nefarious project managers, clueless clients and frustrating software seem to elicit nothing so much as feelings of camaraderie from the freelance translation community. The friends and family members who are bemused by Mox’s fervor for language and tight deadlines get a sympathetic nod as well.

The author notes that he himself, especially in his earlier days, experienced some of this, but he currently makes a good living from his labors. He charges more per word than Mox, who seems to be in a state of perpetual, frantic poverty, tricked into accepting exhausting projects that he nonetheless completes with devotion. He is contrasted sharply with jaded senior translator Calvo, who uses Google Translate for all his projects and charges exorbitant rates. You get the feeling that Mox could learn a few things from Calvo, if only the ability to insist on being paid decently and to resist the wiles of Pam, the evil project manager who enjoys “torturing freelance translators for sport.”

The essays throughout the book echo Moreno-Ramos’ sentiment that all in all, their actual jobs are pretty good, though, perhaps, they have not always been that way. Mox seems to remind them of leaner times before they had established themselves. McKay writes that “When I get a little complacent, I think back on that first year and those 400 resumes” she had sent to various translation agencies looking for freelance work “and I’m glad that I was willing to work 60 hours a week for myself instead of 40 hours a week for someone else!”

Taking a cue from Mox’s agony with his translation memory (TM), Newell’s essay lambasts most commercial TM tools, saying that “giving a translator a translation memory tool is like giving an artist a robotic arm: this makes it much easier to record how the artist produced the work, but the work itself is stilted, artificial and slow.” The book is, above all, a look into the worst (both real and not so real, as Lossner points out) of freelance translation. As such, those higher up on the translation food chain may find it to be an insightful window into the fears and frustrations of those lowest on the chain. The comic strip’s characters are archetypes to the point of being clichés, but archetypes have their value. Especially in a comic strip, with its limited amount of space in which to tell a story or get a point across.

Linguists and grammarians of every kind may also enjoy Mox. “I mentally correct everything I hear and read,” Mox notes. “I would happily spend a Saturday morning attending a talk on Romanian verb tenses in the Middle Ages.” As someone who once snuck into a lecture on Medieval French on a Saturday morning, this made me laugh.

Localization evangelicals, on their part, may find some wit to illustrate the need for localization, as in the bottommost strip on the right. Calvo, the translator in question, is obviously not paid to rebrand an unfortunately named product. That’s someone else’s job, and it’s going to be very expensive to correct if the freelance translator is the one to alert the company.

The comic strips are not without typos and the occasionally awkward English phrase, as may be found in the center comic strip at right — no native English speaker would say “some things must be told” in this context. However, the meaning is perfectly clear and the comic strip still manages to be funny. Many of the mistakes are a bit ironic, of course — in another strip, Mox is pictured as a schoolboy saying “Teacher, I don’t think you spell that word right.” The author is quick to confess that there are errors in the comic strip. “English is not my native language and I can’t help but make mistakes. I only translate into Spanish, my native language,” he writes on his blog. 

Undoubtedly, the biggest market for the book is going to be the freelance translator or anyone who has been one at one time. The rest of us may be able to get the jokes, but perhaps not on quite the same level.